Posts Tagged ‘Stevan Riley’

One of the consequences of Commander Bond taking up one of his extended residences in cinemas up and down the land is that it leaves the field wide open for any sort of counter-programming you care to mention. (This may be why a number of films about the everyday lives of older people appear to be incoming.) Still, as far as this sort of thing goes, you can’t beat a good documentary, and currently making the most of a fairly limited release is Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon.

listen marlon

Marlon! Do we even need to mention a surname? (Or, alternatively: Brando! Is the first name remotely in doubt?) It’s this kind of instant recognition which tells us what a massive, iconic figure Marlon Brando was and remains (or, possibly, what a distinctively unusual pair of monickers he ended up lumbered with). Still, Brando’s reclusiveness in the second half of his life means that while he is still well-known, he is little-understood. Riley’s documentary sets out to rectify this, a bit.

The most immediately striking thing about this film is that it is the work of a lone voice – with the exception of a limited amount of archival soundtrack, the narration is almost wholly provided by Brando himself, drawn from the extensive audio tapes he recorded throughout his life. Most of the time this plays over film clips or publicity material, with a little specially-recorded footage, but occasionally a very primitive-looking CGI version of Brando’s head manifests to lip-synch to whatever he’s saying. This is a slightly creepy and unsettling choice, but not entirely inappropriate for what is by no means the happiest of stories.

Riley sets the scene with some references to the tragedies that blighted Brando’s final years, before skipping back to see how the great man arrived in such sorry straits. His early life is skipped over to some extent, with the story beginning in earnest with his arrival in New York in the mid-1940s, his becoming an actor almost by accident, his studies under Stella Adler, and then his rise to acclaim and popular success, at first on stage and later in the cinema.

Hearing Brando himself talk about the power and value of great movie acting, over a montage of some of his greatest scenes, is terrific, but of course the film has a lot more material concerning his gradual disillusionment with the film industry and reputation for being impossible to work with. (Brando’s fondness for having his lines given to him either by cue cards or via an earpiece is mentioned, though some of the more ludicrous anecdotes are not recycled.)

With most of the film being told in Brando’s own words, the director can’t directly come out and suggest what he thinks made Brando such a troubled individual – but he still does a pretty good job of putting Brando’s difficult childhood in the frame, drawing attention to both his alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father. The end result of this seems to have been a deep-rooted sense of self-loathing in Brando himself – perhaps not just self-loathing, but also a deep disquiet with his own origins. The film spends some time exploring Brando’s love of Tahiti and its people, and his espousal of Native American rights (footage of the Oscars ceremony to which he dispatched a Native American representative to confuse Roger Moore and refuse his award appears), and personally I couldn’t help thinking that he was idealising these cultures, as they offered him a chance to completely remove himself from his own background.

While the film is not entirely without moments of levity – scenes of a publicity tour from the 50s, with Brando cheerfully hitting on every female journalist he encounters, have a definite if unreconstructed charm – this is ultimately really quite a bleak film. The film does not dwell overly on some of the professional indignities and embarrassments from the final years of Brando’s career, when he showed so little respect for his own talent, nor are the family tragedies he had to endure explored in too much detail – but one is left in little doubt as to the general tenor of his final years. (The film concludes with a clip from Brando’s death scene from The Godfather, which struck me as a slightly less subtle choice than was perhaps ideal.)

Then again, one has to wonder, given the film-makers are setting out to tell a particular story, and are necessarily limited by their choice to rely almost exclusively on Brando’s own testimony for their narration – this isn’t by any means an objective account of his life. But, on the other hand, that same choice gives the film an undeniably intimate and personal quality – also, to be perfectly honest, a slightly dreamlike and oppressive quality, almost as if you’re spending 95 minutes inside Brando’s own psyche.

This movie is partly being marketed on the strength of its connections with Searching for Sugar Man, with which it shares a producer, but I have to say I found it rather less engaging and enjoyable. Nevertheless, it gives a considerable insight into a figure who still casts a long shadow, despite his later career arguably being a huge waste of potential. Probably worth seeing as a curio if you are interested in Brando and acting generally; the film-making talent on display is also pretty impressive, too.

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To go with all this ongoing stuff about Babylon 5, a taste of another sort of Babylon. It is, I suspect, one of the abiding shames of my family that I, the son of generations of serious sportsmen and particularly cricketers, have no physical co-ordination or flair to speak of. Possibly it’s just that I am a bit too competitive for my own good: I don’t like to do anything unless I can be genuinely good at it, and  – in the case of sports and games – challenge for the win every time. I’m not physically gifted enough to enjoy sport.

However, I can appreciate a great sporting story as much as the next person, whether that is a personal narrative or a wider social and political one. I know that in the past I have been a bit dismissive of sports bio-pics, but I’ve never had a problem with sports documentaries. One such film is Stevan Riley’s Fire in Babylon, an account of the rise to world domination of the West Indian cricket team.

Riley’s film opens by setting the scene: the Caribbean in the 1960s, with political changes afoot. With former colonies such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Antigua all winning independence, the growth of a new West Indian consciousness and identity was in progress, sweeping through all aspects of the culture. This of course also permeated into the most popular sport in the region, cricket.

Unfortunately, in the early 1970s, the West Indian team was in no shape to fly the flag for the countries it represented. Routinely dismissed as ‘Calypso cricketers’, they were renowned as being great entertainers but not truly a competitive side. This changed with the appointment of Clive Lloyd as the captain and the 1975 Test series against Australia.

The hammering meted out by the Australians, especially their fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, prompted Lloyd to refashion the side along much more aggressive lines, with the deployment of a ferocious pace attack of their own, in support of one of the game’s greatest ever batsmen…

And it’s the story of this transformation and what followed which is the meat of the film. As a document on Caribbean culture, it’s never less than engaging, and makes a good companion piece to Kevin Macdonald’s Marley – in addition to using some of the same archive footage, they have at least one contributor in common, in the unmistakable form of Bunny Wailer – Wailer’s contributions are always interesting, even if he does spend quite a lot of time shouting at a passing dog.

However, it’s as an insight into the world of international cricket that Fire in Babylon is genuinely eye-opening. I’ve always thought of cricket in terms of jolly good chaps in whites being, fundamentally, fairly decent and sporting to each other, even in the most competitive of fixtures. This conception of the game is comprehensively destroyed very early on in the film. The legendary Windies player Viv Richards is essentially depicted as some kind of warrior prince. He explicitly refers to his bat as a sword at one point, along with his desire to put people to it. The team’s quartet of fast bowlers in the late 70s were cheerfully nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them, Andy Roberts, calmly objects to claims his style was based around intentionally trying to hit opposing batsmen. ‘I was not a hit man,’ he declares, his face a picture of benign solemnity. ‘Nevertheless, people did get hit.’

This is not surprising when you consider that the kind of fast bowling under discussion involves people throwing very small, very hard projectiles at each other at speeds of over 90mph – bone-breaking impacts are a distinct possibility. If there’s an argument to be made that this sort of thing may not be the stuff genuine sport consists of, Fire in Babylon does not make it – instead, the film is keen to point out that the Australians were there first, and the West Indies only matched them. Archive footage shows Dennis Lillee explaining why the possibility of serious physical injury was central to the pace attack tactic, as it – understandably – made the receiving batsman think more about staying in one piece than actually playing the ball.

And the vicious sledging employed by the Australians is also singled out for attention, as more evidence that the West Indies were compelled to become a harder, stronger team in order to compete. This is, throughout, a partisan film – the story is told exclusively from the West Indian point of view, with no real time given to critics outside of archive footage. (Quite surprisingly, there’s no real discussion of Viv Richards’ unique approach to dealing with sledgers: after failing to hit several successive balls, one bowler told Richards, ‘It’s red, round and weighs about five ounces, if you were wondering’ – Richards hit the next delivery out of the ground into a river and suggested to the bowler, ‘You know what it looks like, now go and find it.’) Even Colin Croft is given time to explain his decision to participate in a rebel tour of South Africa, where he was designated an ‘honorary white’, although the outrage accompanying this event is also commented upon.

The political aspect of the West Indies’ rise to the total domination they enjoyed for a decade and a half is treated in some depth, and I personally found myself wondering if some of this wasn’t just a little overstated. Then again, it’s not all that long ago that Norman Tebbit was proposing that cricketing allegiance should be used as a test of whether someone was truly British or not, so I could be wrong. Statements concerning the quintessentially African nature of West Indian fast bowling still struck me as a little dubious, not to mention Bunny Wailer’s declaration that Viv Richards was some sort of stealth Rastafarian.

It’s become a tedious old saw that a great documentary takes a subject and makes it fascinating even to those previously totally ignorant of it. Fire in Babylon is a intelligent, enjoyable, cleverly assembled film, and its only real flaw is that it pitches its deliveries too much to those who are already fans of cricket in general and West Indian cricket in particular. A few more dissenting voices and a little more objectivity might have made an already good film into something really special.

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